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Wheeling weighs incentive to retain firefighters

WHEELING, W.Va. — Many people would jump at the chance to retire at age 50, but the city of Wheeling is moving to give its firefighters an incentive to stay a little while longer.

City council’s Finance Committee – Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey and Councilmen Don Atkinson and David Miller – voted unanimously Tuesday to endorse the creation of a deferred retirement option for firefighters. This would allow them to continue working for one to five years but collect the pension benefits they would have received had they retired as a lump sum when they actually do leave.

City Manager Robert Herron said the program will allow Wheeling to retain experienced, able-bodied firefighters – many of whom continue to work elsewhere after retiring from the city at the minimum age of 50 with 20 years’ service.

“Instead of going to Wal-Mart or some other secondary job, it keeps them here,” Herron said.

Eligible employees within the fire department now will vote on whether to send the proposal to the state Municipal Pensions Oversight Board for approval, according to Herron. If approved by that agency, it would come before city council as an ordinance.

Wheeling would be the second city in West Virginia to set up a deferred retirement option plan, or DROP, since the Legislature voted to allow the practice in 2011. The other, the St. Albans Fire Department, set up its DROP plan in 2013.

The DROP plan also would allow the city to plan ahead for vacancies at a time when Fire Chief Larry Helms said fewer young people are showing an interest in the job.

Helms said he was one of 425 people who signed up to take the firefighters’ exam in 1983, but in 2013, the last time the city gave the test, only about 110 signed up. Of those, about 40 actually showed up to take the test and only 18 passed, according to Helms.

“Our hiring lists are getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Rick Brown, secretary of the fire department’s Pension Board, said the majority of firefighters who would be eligible for the DROP support the move.

Under the draft proposal, Herron said, both the employer and employee contributions to a firefighter’s pension plan would cease upon enrollment in the program. If a prospective retiree’s pension is worth $35,000 annually and he is in the DROP for five years, he would receive a one-time payment of $175,000 at the end of that time, and then begin receiving monthly pension checks.

There are several advantages to this for the city, according to Herron.

The money that would have been paid to retirees remains in the pension fund during the DROP period and continues to collect interest. The general fund also saves money by delaying the city’s contribution to the pension fund of new hires, as well as the $6,000 to $6,500 cost of training and equipping a new firefighter.

A regular council meeting followed the Finance Committee discussion.

During that meeting, council members unanimously approved the transfer of $155,000 in tax increment financing revenue to the city’s development arm, the Ohio Valley Area Development Corp., for the purchase of property within the city’s downtown TIF district, which includes land between Water Street and the west side of Market Street from 10th Street south to Wheeling Creek.

Herron said Tuesday he still cannot identify the property or properties to be purchased because the city remains in active negotiations. He previously said he hoped a deal would get done sometime this month, at which time the city will make an announcement.

The ordinance approved Tuesday states only that the $155,000 is to be used “for TIF-related economic development.”

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